Let’s preview how the teams will do this year (listed in order of finish):
THE TOP 10 LIST
ANAHEIM DUCKS: Now that the celebration is over and the bubbly has fizzled, the Ducks are focused on defending their title. GM Brian Burke made some good moves in the off-season with the signings of Mathieu Schneider and Todd Bertuzzi.
Yet, future Hall-of-Famers Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer are both undecided about playing. Schneider and Bertuzzi are worthy replacements, but the return of Selanne and Niedermayer will definitely help the Ducks’ cause.
OTTAWA SENATORS: Last year’s Stanley Cup runner up essentially has the same team, meaning there is no reason to think they will not have another run at the top of the Eastern Conference. Ottawa’s defense is perhaps one of the strongest in the NHL.
The only “X-factor” is new head coach John Paddock. To avoid the proverbial “Stanley Cup Hangover,” Ottawa will probably be on the market for an experienced scorer, as their only weakness this season is scoring upfront.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS: Losing Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer last season, the Devils lost defenseman Brian Rafalski and center Scott Gomez this summer. Yet GM Lou Lamoriello brought in Vitaly Vishnevski and Dainius Zubrus, both solid players. Martin Brodeur should be solid again as netminder.
NEW YORK RANGERS: Already a decent team with Brendan Shanahan and Jaromír Jágr, the Rangers had an amazing off-season with the signings of centers Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. The Rangers are now one of the deepest teams in the NHL and could very well skate past New Jersey and Ottawa to take the Eastern Conference by storm, especially with a second forward line that is better than half of the league’s first forward lines. It also helps to have a young, talented netminder in Henrik Lundqvist.
MINNESOTA WILD: With the stingiest defense in the NHL last season – they allowed the fewest goals in the league – expect the defense to carry the day again. Promising goalie Niklas Backstrom assumes the starting job, replacing Manny Fernandez. The Wild need to strengthen up their offense if they expect to move past the second round of the playoffs. Also, Marián Gáborík needs to stay healthy all year.
COLORADO AVALANCHE: Colorado signed two key free agents this summer, Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan. Both should compliment the young, promising core of Wojtek Wolski and Paul Stastny.
If Joe Sakic continues to play well, and Jordan Leopold can return to form on defense after missing most of last season, hockey in Denver will be fun to watch again.
SAN JOSE SHARKS: With a young, talented team that is virtually unchanged the past three seasons (and very little expected to change in the near future with Joe Thorton sticking around for three more years), the Sharks should be contenders again. New addition Jeremy Roenick will hope to be that missing link to get the Sharks past the second round of the playoffs, where the team seems to always stumble.
EDMONTON OILERS: GM Kevin Lowe managed to pry Dustin Penner from Anaheim (basically replacing Chris Pronger) and also brought in several solid defenseman in Sheldon Souray, Joni Pitkanen and Dick Tarnstrom, shoring up the defensive line.
The improved blue line will have a significant impact on the offense, which should score enough goals for the defense to protect leads and keep the Oilers in the hunt all season long.
DETROIT RED WINGS: The Red Wings should follow up last year’s deep playoff run by competing for the Central Division title. They basically have the same team as last season, meaning a playoff appearance is a given.
While Mathieu Schneider bolted to Anaheim, recently signed Brian Rafalski will be a worthy replacement. Dominik Hašek will be starting at goal again and should continue his domination at the net.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: The Penguins have a core of three young, budding superstars: Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin (all under the age of 21). GM Ray Shero did a great job of surrounding the young core with savvy veterans – Petr Sykora, Darryl Sydor, Ty Conklin and Gary Roberts.
If Marc-Andre Fleury can catch fire defending the net, the Penguins may be able to ride deep into the playoffs.
PLAYOFF BOUND … AND THAT’S ABOUT IT
BUFFALO SABRES: Losing Chris Drury and Daniel Brière doesn’t help Buffalo’s cause this year. Yet, the Sabres have enough young talent to remain competitive and at least make a threatening run in the playoffs.
Buffalo managed to keep Thomas Vanek from leaving for Edmonton, and defensemen Nathan Paetsch and Brian Campbell and forwards Drew Stafford and Jason Pominville definitely give Sabre fans something to cheer about.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS: Hoping their magical ride last year will not turn into a pumpkin, the Isles will try to build on their Cinderella run. However, it will not be easy, especially since GM Garth Snow failed to resign any of his top free agents, losing Alexei Yashin, Ryan Smyth, Jason Blake and Tom Poti.
Yet, Snow replenished his losses with players, such as Bill Guerin, who fit well under coach Ted Nolan’s system.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: True to their name, the Flyers will fly up the standings this season. They can only go up, after finishing last season with the NHL’s worst record.
GM Paul Holmgren was one of the busiest executives in the off-season, signing free agents Daniel Brière, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell, while trading for Joffrey Lupul and Jason Smith.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS: Despite ownership, payroll and attendance issues, the Preds are still well-coached and have a solid core of young defenseman. Chris Mason is one of the league’s top goalies, and Alexander Radulov anchors an electric offense.
Even though Nashville lost the likes of Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg and Kimmo Timonen, the Preds have enough elements in plays to qualify for the playoffs.
DALLAS STARS: Dallas is yet another team that enjoyed regular season success, yet failed to move forward in the playoffs. The Stars seriously lacked offense to compliment Marty Turco’s stellar play defending the net.
With no major free agent signings to address their offensive woes, expect many 1-0 games. The Stars defense should get them back in the playoffs again, but expect a first-round exit, unless GM Doug Armstrong brings in some offensive talent.
ATLANTA THRASHERS: The Thrashers have a good enough team to at least repeat as division champ – though it will be a little more difficult this season, considering the high number of quality free agent losses this past summer (including Keith Tkachuk).
Marian Hossa is a promising young player who can be the face of the franchise, though he is a free agent next summer and could very easily leave. Atlanta will rest their hopes on the development of goalie Kari Lehtonen.
THE MAXWELL SMART FAN CLUB – MISSED IT BY THAT MUCH!
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: The Canucks surprised everyone by winning the NHL’s toughest division and winning in the playoffs. Goalie Roberto Luongo definitely helped, but do not expect the same level of success this season, with a weak offense that was not improved in the off-season.
While Henrik and Daniel Sedin are promising players, it may be too much to depend upon them for a bulk of the offense, especially with Markus Näslund on the downside of his career.
ST. LOUIS BLUES: Keith Tkachuk returns to where he defined his illustrious career. Joining him are free agent signees Paul Kariya and Hannu Toivonen.
Andy Murray is a hard-nosed, blue-collar coach who brings a no-nonsense attitude to the ice. Toivonen brings depth to the net, as he will battle with Manny Legace for starting honors.
While the Blues consider themselves in rebuilding stage, they had a great run late in the season last year and hope to carry that momentum into this season.
CAROLINA HURRICANES: While they did miss the playoffs last year, they do play in the Southeast Division, so returning to the playoffs this year is not completely out of the realm, especially if team cornerstones Eric Staal and Cam Ward recover from a tough ’06-’07 season.
If Cory Stillman and Erik Cole can remain healthy for most of the season, then we can see a resurgent Hurricane team make another run at the Cup.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: New Owner Doug MacLean acquired former Bolts Chris Gratton and Brad Lukowich. Yet, will MacLean spend the money necessary to upgrade the team’s biggest weakness at goaltending? With limited cap space and internal budget issues, it’s unlikely that MacLean can solve the problem anytime soon.
Also, the Bolts need their superstars – Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle – to play on the same level as they did in 2004.
HEY, THE GM WAS ON TO SOMETHING WITH THAT WHOLE “RE-BUILDING” IDEA …
WASHINGTON CAPITALS: Things are looking up in D.C. Not only do they have one of the NHL’s hottest stars in Alex Ovechkin, they also landed top prospect Nicklas Bäckström, while Alexander Semin has proven to be yet another young, budding star.
It definitely helped that the team signed free agents such as Tom Poti, Viktor Kozlov and Michael Nylander, all of whom will help balance out an otherwise youthful roster.
LOS ANGELES KINGS: The Kings appear to be stuck in re-building mode. GM Dean Lombardi brings in Brad Stuart, who will help veteran Rob Blake and top-ranked rookie Jack Johnson on the blue-line.
Lombardi also brings in potential scoring threats in Ladislav Nagy and Michal Handzuš. Also on offense is last year’s rookie sensation Anže Kopitar.
The Kings most glaring weakness is goalkeeping, where Jason LaBarbera will get the initial nod as starter – though he will have to prove he is worthy of staying there.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Once a storied franchise, fans in Chicago have not had much to cheer about. Nonetheless, don’t discount the current Blackhawks roster.
The defensive line of Cameron Barker, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook is very talented. Martin Havlát is an exceptional scorer.
Throw in the raw talent of Jonathan Toews, Jack Skille and Patrick Kane, and there might be reason to hope. But unfortunately, management didn’t make any significant roster moves in the off-season.
CALGARY FLAMES: GM Darryl Sutter thinks it’s time to go in a new direction. Accordingly, he let many players go, such as Jeff Friesen and Brad Stuart.
In their place are veteran acquisitions such as Adrian Aucoin, Owen Nolan and Cory Sarich. Mike Keenan comes in as the team’s new coach, who will try to return the team to its gritty style of play – and the new acquisitions are just the players who fit the mold.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: The key to the Jackets’ ascension in the league will be the moves they make this season. Veterans Adam Foote and Sergei Fedorov are both free agents in 2008. New GM Scott Howson will either trade them for valuable talent, or let them go at season’s end, opening up much needed cap space for him to pursue top prospects and veterans.
With potentially solid players in Michael Peca and Richard Nash, combined with depth at goal with Pascal Leclaire and Fredrik Norrena, coach Ken Hitchcock has the pieces he needs to build a winner in Columbus.
WAIT, WE PLAYED GAMES THIS YEAR?
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: The Maples Leafs hope that goalie Vesa Toskala will be a savior in Toronto, as management unloaded three draft picks for him. Unfortunately, he’s not even guaranteed to start.
Additionally, Mark Bell – who came along in the Toskala trade – will miss the end of the season as he serves a six-month jail sentence. Not exactly a great summer for the Maple Leafs, who also lost Michael Peca. On the bright side, they picked up Jason Blake, who may be a solid partner for Mats Sundin.
MONTREAL CANADIENS: GM Bob Gainey managed to bring in defenseman Roman Hamrlík and also figured out a way to unload the underachieving Sergei Samsonov. Also, Carey Price is an awesome talent in goal and will be a bright spot.
Saku Koivu carried the team on offense last year, yet he doesn’t have much help. Unfortunately, the off-season moves do nothing to improve the Canadiens’ lot.
BOSTON BRUINS: Claude Julien begins his first full season as head coach, and his first order of business is to shore up the goaltending. Manny Fernandez is apparently Julien’s choice to defend the net, though Fernandez needs a lot more help if the Bruins plan on winning games with any frequency.
Marc Savard will do his part, as will Zdeno Chara. However, the Bruins need a more consistent third-scorer than Glen Murray. Upgrades are also needed on defense.
FLORIDA PANTHERS: If goaltending wins games – and the Stanley Cup – the Panthers are hoping Tomáš Vokoun will help the team get back to winning. Vokoun was acquired over the summer, though he’s plagued by a thumb injury that slowed him down late last season.
Nathan Horton is a talent in South Beach. Other promising players include Jay Bouwmeester, Stephen Weiss, Bryan Allen and Olli Jokinen.
There is definitely enough talent in Miami for the Panthers to work with, especially if Vokoun bounces back from his injury. Yet, it seems that every year, the Panthers have a chance to breakthrough and make progress, only to go nowhere each time.
PHOENIX COYOTES: There are two reasons to watch the Coyotes this season. If you live in Phoenix, watching a game of ice hockey is definitely cooler than being outside. For everyone else, you get to see Wayne Gretzky behind an NHL bench. Other than that, the Coyotes do not offer much.
The Coyotes basically cleaned house this off-season, firing GM Mike Barnett and senior advisor Cliff Fletcher, and letting go of Jeremy Roenick, Curtis Joseph and Owen Nolan – players who were signed to bring life to Phoenix. On the bright side, the Coyotes do have a solid defense, which new GM Don Maloney – who helped bring the Rangers back to prominence – will build a foundation.
Much will be expected of Ed Jovanovski, who now is all that is left from last year’s major acquisitions. There will be a fight for goaltending, as there is no clear-cut No. 1 starter among Alex Auld, David Aebischer and Mikael Tellqvist. Either way, the Coyotes will be writing off yet another season.
WESTERN CONFERENCE -- EASTERN CONFERENCE
Anaheim over Dallas Ottawa over Atlanta
Minnesota over Nashville Philadelphia over New Jersey
Detroit over Colorado N.Y. Rangers over N.Y. Islanders
San Jose over Edmonton Pittsburgh over Buffalo
Anaheim over Detroit Ottawa over Philadelphia
San Jose over Minnesota N.Y. Rangers over Pittsburgh
Anaheim over San Jose N.Y. Rangers over Ottawa
STANLEY CUP FINALS
N.Y. Rangers over Anaheim in six games